If, as looks likely, Mrs May loses heav­ily in the Com­mons to­mor­row, it will be be­cause of her ob­sti­nacy, not her re­silience Rick Wil­ford is Pro­fes­sor of Pol­i­tics at Queen’s Univer­sity Belfast

Gov­ern­ment de­feat over with­drawal agree­ment will make a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum all but in­evitable, ar­gues Rick Wil­ford

Belfast Telegraph - - COMMENT -

The late US Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son once ob­served that the first rule of pol­i­tics is that its prac­ti­tion­ers need to be able to count; for Theresa May this rule has been hard learnt and she now stands poised to count the cost of her stub­born­ness.

To­mor­row MPs will at last have the op­por­tu­nity to have their mean­ing­ful vote on the PM’s pro­posed Brexit deal (postponed by a month) and, while es­ti­mates vary, it seems cer­tain that she will suf­fer a clear if not re­sound­ing de­feat. And let us not for­get that the op­por­tu­nity to vote was it­self only won through re­course to the courts and sup­port from many of her back­benchers, who al­lied with MPs on the Op­po­si­tion benches.

Al­though she has em­barked on an eleventh hour — or should that be ‘one minute to mid­night’ — charm of­fen­sive to per­suade MPs from across the Com­mons to en­dorse her deal, the best she can wish for is to try and re­duce the scale of op­po­si­tion to less than three fig­ures. A vain hope, I sus­pect. Fur­ther­more, in the face of de­feat she will have to come to the Com­mons within three work­ing days (next Mon­day) to ta­ble a mo­tion iden­ti­fy­ing her next move; in ef­fect, Plan B.

With Par­lia­ment al­ready deeply di­vided over the with­drawal agree­ment, cur­rently there is no ma­jor­ity in the Com­mons for any of the mooted al­ter­na­tives, most ev­i­dently that of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. No doubt she will, in the wake of de­feat, trail off to Brus­sels in Oliver Twist mode seek­ing to ex­tract a bit more from the EU, pri­mar­ily a writ­ten le­gal guar­an­tee that the back­stop, if trig­gered, will ap­ply only for a fi­nite pe­riod. That, I’m afraid, is as likely as Monty Python’s par­rot spring­ing back to its perch. What then are her op­tions?

In sur­vey­ing them one has to bear in mind Mrs May’s style of premier­ship. Flex­i­ble is not a word that springs to mind when as­sess­ing her modus operandi.

Her ap­proach to the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions has been to wall-in the process to a small cir­cle of ad­vis­ers in No 10, them­selves con­strained by her early state­ment of red lines: out of the cus­toms union and the sin­gle mar­ket, end­ing free­dom of move­ment and re­claim­ing sovereignty by aban­don­ing the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice.

In the face of the most mo­men­tous de­ci­sion con­fronting the na­tion, she cre­ated a strait­jacket of Leave-in­spired con­straints that has lim­ited the scope for in­ven­tive­ness among UK ne­go­tia­tors.

So, let us not waste time on sym­pa­this­ing with the PM’s predica­ment. She is very much the au­thor of her own de­served mis­for­tune. The Brexit process has been ham­strung from the first thanks to Mrs May’s ob­du­racy rather than, as her apolto ogists have it, her re­silience. Be­lated ef­forts to per­suade MPs of the sweet rea­son­able­ness of her ‘deal’ does not chime with her pre­ferred style of gov­ern­ing, which has in­cluded seek­ing to keep Par­lia­ment at arm’slength through­out.

That ap­proach has clearly foundered as MPs bite back, en­abled by a Speaker John Ber­cow, who is in­trin­si­cally dis­posed to fa­cil­i­tate the voices, opin­ions and, cru­cially, votes of back­benchers. And, lest we for­get, un­der­pin­ning the Brex­i­teers’ mantra of “tak­ing back con­trol” lay a cor­ner­stone of the UK’s con­sti­tu­tion: par­lia­men­tary sovereignty.

Nei­ther the Speaker nor her back­benchers can be faulted for ex­ploit­ing that in­dis­pens­able el­e­ment of our con­sti­tu­tional ar­chi­tec­ture. So what can she do in the wake of likely de­feat? As far as the EU is con­cerned, ne­go­ti­a­tions over the with­drawal agree­ment are over and there will be no sub­stan­tive change to its terms. At best, if it is feel­ing char­i­ta­ble (and why would it?), the most she can hope to ex­tract from the EU is some sort of let­ter of com­fort on the back­stop, but, cru­cially, one that has no le­gal force. That won’t wash with a ma­jor­ity of MPs, whether Leavers or Re­main­ers.

Through­out, she has in­sisted that the UK will leave the EU on March 29. How­ever, if con­fronted with a brick wall in Brus­sels re the with­drawal agree­ment she may be forced

❝ Her strait­jacket of con­straints lim­ited the scope for in­ven­tive­ness among UK ne­go­tia­tors

seek an ex­ten­sion of Ar­ti­cle 50, thereby putting back the date of de­par­ture un­less and un­til some sort of con­sen­sus can be wrought at West­min­ster. But, of course, whether the EU would agree to an ex­ten­sion is by no means guar­an­teed, nor is the prospect of an in­ter-party con­sen­sus on an al­ter­na­tive.

In­deed, it is, I think, alien to her po­lit­i­cal in­stincts to reach out to her op­po­nents across the Com­mons (and those sit­ting be­hind her) in or­der to try to forge a con­sen­sus on this ut­terly ex­is­ten­tial mat­ter; but if she sur­vives to­mor­row’s likely de­feat, she will have to.

There are think­able al­ter­na­tives to the with­drawal agree­ment, ab­bre­vi­ated as the Nor­way+ op­tion or Canada++, but as yet nei­ther is ca­pa­ble of se­cur­ing a ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment, while the no-deal exit ap­peals to just a few dozen, mainly Tory MPs.

What is left? In the short­run, a gen­eral elec­tion or an­other ref­er­en­dum — each is prob­lem­atic and riven with uncer­tainty.

Jeremy Cor­byn’s pref­er­ence is a gen­eral elec­tion, the first step to­wards which is the tabling of a mo­tion of no con­fi­dence in the Gov­ern­ment fol­low­ing to­mor­row’s vote, though not nec­es­sar­ily im­me­di­ately.

To suc­ceed he needs the sup­port of two-thirds of MPs: 416 (ex­clud­ing Sinn Fein’s ab­sten­tion­ist MPs plus the Speaker and three Deputy Speak­ers), which is ex­tremely un­likely given that he would need a size­able chunk of Con­ser­va­tive MPs to vote with him.

Mrs May could, of course, take the mat­ter into her own hands, as she did in April 2017, and call an early elec­tion.

Noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble in these ex­tra­or­di­nary times but, given the state of the polls, it seems rash if not fool­hardy for a mi­nor­ity Gov­ern­ment char­ac­terised by a di­vided Cab­i­net and party to opt for this prob­a­bly sui­ci­dal path.

Mr Cor­byn’s first choice looks doomed, which leaves us with an­other ref­er­en­dum — and there are ar­gu­ments in its favour. We now have a much fuller un­der­stand­ing of the ben­e­fits and costs of Brexit than we did in June 2016, such that the elec­torate can make a more rea­soned and in­formed judg­ment about the UK’s fu­ture re­la­tion­ship with the EU.

But what would be the ques­tion or ques­tions on the bal­lot paper? May’s deal ver­sus Re­main? Re­main ver­sus both May’s deal and Leave on World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion terms (no-deal)? And what would the fran­chise be: those aged over 18 or 16 years (as was the case at the Scot­tish In­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum)?

If Par­lia­ment proves in­ca­pable of ex­tri­cat­ing us from this mess then a ref­er­en­dum, with all its at­ten­dant risks and un­cer­tain­ties, seems un­avoid­able.

❝ If Par­lia­ment can­not ex­tri­cate us from this mess then a ref­er­en­dum ... seems un­avoid­able

Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May, and (below) Labourleader Jeremy Cor­byn

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